Lessons from Botswana

This is the heart of a very special Africa. It is the kind of place where an ex-head of state answers his own cell phone and rushes to the airport to greet an American visitor, displaying a modest decorum unusual among former African presidents.

Former President Sir Ketumile Masire's tactful underplaying of his own prominence and importance as Botswana's revered second president exemplifies the Botswanan difference. Unlike many of its neighbors, this gentle nation has always enjoyed and now actively expects honest, visionary leadership, good governance, and a macroeconomic regime conducive to economic growth. Because of such favorable conditions, the annual per capita GDP of Botswanans is at least 10 times greater than that of those who live in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

This pattern of responsible leadership began with Botswana's founding president, Sir Seretse Khama and now continues under President Festus Mogae. He speaks straightforwardly to visitors, refuses motorcades, and eschews the expensive private jets favored by presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, and King Mswati III of Swaziland.

Mr. Mogae even mused to a recent visitor about the possibility - remote, he thinks - that his ruling Botswana Democratic Party would refuse to renominate him for a second presidential term. Hardly any other serving African president could contemplate such a result, much less discuss it rhetorically. More often, African presidents attempt to rewrite constitutional provisions forbidding third and fourth terms (as in Malawi, Namibia, Togo, and Zambia), run roughshod over their political parties and their electorates, bribe oppositions, or blatantly rig elections, as last year in Zimbabwe. Mogae, however, makes it clear that if he should be reelected president in 2004, his term will have to end exactly on the 10th anniversary of his first presidential day, at the end of March, 2008.

Botswana is no paradise, except comparatively, but the rest of Africa can learn much from its practices. Indeed, Africa's most critical concerns are readily apparent here in the sleepy, stable capital of the continent's longest-enduring democracy. Once poor and uneducated, most of its people now receive eight years of schooling, know no hunger, and have been promised free retroviral medicines if they test positive for AIDS. It is a relatively contented oasis, with much to teach the rest of Africa, because of a firm adherence to the rule of law, the comparative absence of corruption, and a pattern of tolerant, benevolent rule.

Not all Botswanan professionals live in three-bedroom brick houses with swimming pools and a small garden, but there are many who do. When a university lecturer, his family, and I had tea together last month in the garden near one swimming pool, Mogae and his government came in for gentle criticism, but more because of what more they could do for the people and less because of personal failings or excesses. In similar settings in most of the rest of Africa, a visitor would have heard talk about major presidential errors and gross governmental mistakes. Complaints about corruption would have been on every lip. Moreover, less-favored Africans would fear being shot or tortured for criticizing the behavior of their "big man."

Botswana has among the world's highest recorded national HIV prevalence rates. But at least it is doing what it can to combat the scourge of AIDS. Mogae campaigns vigorously for awareness, prevention, and safer sex. His government provides free retroviral medicines for anyone infected.

Much of Africa is deficient in Botswana's qualities. Too often, and in too many other countries, the performance criteria that signify positive governance are honored in the breach, economic prospects are limited by large deficits, galloping official theft, overregulation, and weak rule of law. Too many of Africa's leaders feather their own nests while disdaining the needs and rights of their subjects. The leadership failures of most African heads of state are obvious to indigenous inhabitants wanting good schools, medical clinics, decent roads, internet connections, and fundamental security.

Thanks to the vision of Sir Seretse Khama, his little country's political culture is firmly participatory, ethical, and committed to service delivery. Botswana's emphasis on the last point contrasts starkly with many of its neighbors, where education and health for the people are sacrificed on the altar of defense spending, jobs for the big guys, lavish palaces, corrupt payoffs, and a macroeconomic framework designed to benefit elites.

As Botswana has grown strong, thanks to a supportive governmental and economic framework and gem diamonds, other raw material producers in Africa - especially the oil exporters - are poorly governed and have transferred much of their riches into the hands of a privileged few.

Doubtless there are cultural reasons within Africa for some of these differences, but most reflect the personal predilections of sets of charismatic but overbearing leaders. Botswana has been spared that affliction, and now is capable of resisting any future leader who tries to behave as autocratically as President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or recent President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya.

It is not so much that Botswana is remarkably well run, it is that it is run for its people, not for a ruling clique or a band of well-connected crooks. Other Africans deserve as much.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of Harvard University's Program on Intrastate Conflict at the Kennedy School and president of the World Peace Foundation.

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